Saturday, December 04, 2004

Faded Splendour

I am writing to you all from Salta in north west Argentina, but a lot has happened since leaving Sucre.

On leaving Sucre we travelled to Potosi (along, what is a rarity for Bolivia, tarmacked roads), which has the distinction of being the highest city in the world at 4090m. Potosi also has a very turbulent history. The Spaniards found silver in the mountain overlooking Potosi (named cero rico, or rich mountain) early in their conquest of South America, and it turned out to be the richest silver mine in the world. By the end of the 16th century silver from Potosi was underwriting the Spanish monarchy and the city had become one of the largest in the world at the time (third I think). Conditions in the mines were incredibly harsh and in the 300 years that the mine was exploited on an industrial scale it is estimated that 8 million people died as a direct consequence. The silver gradually ran out and the city's fame and wealth faded with it. Lately other minerals such as zinc, tin and lead have been found and the mountain is home to small-scale co-operative mining.

The buildings of the old town point to its glorious past, but most of them need slightly more than a lick of paint. The town's main highlight is the old mint which has been converted into a museum chronicling the history of Potosi and the mines there. One of the major ironies is that for about 250 years a lot of Spain's money was minted in Potosi, nowadays most of Bolivia's money is minted in Spain.

On our second day we went on a tour of the mines, which was a real eye-opener. After getting kitted out in boiler suits we headed off to the miners markets to buy some provisions for the miners we would meet. The miners market in Potosi is probably the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite on the street, and since we can't pass up an opportunity like that we duly bought some! Then it was on to the mine. The work conditions are horrible: low ceilings, constant dust in the air, oppressive heat that sometimes exceeds 30 degrees and long hours (working in excess of 12 hours a day is not uncommon). Although the conditions in colonial times must have been far worse at least it gave an idea of what it must have been like. What was perhaps most shocking was the fact that some of the miners were as young as 10 years old! To see these children (because that's what they are) push heavy carts full of ore and weighing over a tonne was quite difficult. However after the grimy horrors of the mine there was place for some light entertainment when we blew up our dynamite. The highlight being when someone had the bright idea of shoving a stick up the ass of a stuffed toy (Pooh) that we happened to have with us. Contrary to popular demand Pooh survived the dynamite encounter unscathed and so we stuck a blasting fuse in the poor bugger and finished him off.

After our mining adventures we were back on the road towards Salta. It's amazing that the main road between Bolivia and Argentina is little more than a dirt track. Due to this we were unable to reach the border before it closed and decided to camp by the side of the road. When we finally reached Argentina the next day (today) we were overjoyed to be greeted with tarmac. Aaaah, I had missed the luxury of being able to sleep on the road.

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